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Late summer snow a danger to hikers

La Nina snowpack can be deadly, warn rescuers

AT a time when mid-August heat would normally be the biggest threat to North Shore hikers, rescuers are warning the public to be wary of snow.

Most years, the trails on the mountains are clear by mid-July, said Tim Jones, spokesman for North Shore Rescue, but on a trip up Seymour earlier this week he watched hikers in shorts and running shoes tackling trails covered in a thick layer of hard, icy snow.

"We've had fatalities in this kind of weather before," said Jones. "They'll ascend a steep snow slope and then they'll descend it and that's when they'll slip and fall and go several hundred feet."

"Knock on wood, we've been very lucky (this year). But I was astounded yesterday by the number of people who were hiking, totally unprepared, totally oblivious."

He described the conditions as "full winter," adding that any rescue crews would use crampons, poles and ropes.

Another factor to look out for is the rising water level in streams swollen by runoff, especially later in the day after the sun melts the snow.

While a stream may be easy to cross in the morning, by late afternoon it could be a raging torrent, said Jones.

Last weekend, two hikers were forced to spend a cold night in the forest after failing to cross a roaring creek near Lynn Headwaters Park.

Metro Vancouver measures the snowpack at Orchid Lake in the Seymour River watershed, which is usually snow-free by sometime in July. The latest measurements showed 30 centimetres of snow on the ground, said Bill Morrell, spokesman for Metro Vancouver.

While he said the snowpack numbers fluctuate every year, he put this year as in the top three since the region began keeping records in the 1970s.

The icy conditions do have an upside for the Lower Mainland, however, said Morrell. The late-season snow has kept Metro's reservoir's up near the 90 per cent mark, well above the two previous years.

"It's a very nice cushion that gives us great comfort when we get into the August, September of the year, where there's very low rainfall and very high water demand," he said.

Environment Canada meteorologist Doug Lundquist said the unseasonably snowy conditions are a result of the cool spring the Lower Mainland experienced this year, followed by a late start to summer. The weather is likely a lingering effect of La Nina ocean current, which tends to bring colder weather to B.C., according to Lundquist.

"It was certainly a delayed snowmelt at the higher elevations, and I think that's one of the main factors," he said.

"We saw a very cool spring, then the earlier part of summer was cool, so that delayed the snowmelt in the higher elevations of the North Shore mountains."

The River Forecast Centre also keeps snowpack data for the area, but stops counting in May, since by that time the site where it takes its measurements is usually snow free, according to a spokesperson.

tholloway@nsnews.com